Magical moments in Malaysia
by Martin Steady | 12 July 2019
I step off the Bukit Merah ferry and enter a caged walkway. I feel captive, but look out on the freedom of the island beyond where the most beautiful inhabitants imaginable are happily wandering around, lazing, eating, playing and generally getting on with their lives. I think I’ve just fallen in love with orangutans!
“This is their island, not ours,” says our guide. “We are the caged ones, not them.” Here, at the Bukit Merah Orangutan Sanctuary, these serene ‘creatures of the forest’ live like kings, mostly untouched by the outside world. I crouch down in front of an impressive young male and we look at each other, curiously.
He notices a piece of apple on my side of the fence and lazily finds himself a stick. With almost bored ease, he shoves it under the netting to hook the tasty treat back towards him. I’m impressed and honoured – but also feel sad and angry that human greed for palm oil is decimating the natural habitat of these creatures.
The clash and contrast between modern-day life and nature is always closeby in Malaysia. I’d arrived in Kuala Lumpur, courtesy of British Airways, and spent a night in the five-star Sama Sama hotel before being whisked into the heart of the city for a restful night high above the hubbub at the towering Hotel Istana. Just hours later I swapped the noise of the metropolis for the sounds of Taman Negara.
This vast national park covers more than 4,300sq km - a sprawling, steaming wilderness that dates back 130 million years. It’s the oldest primary rainforest on the planet and, as such, offers the ultimate jungle experience.
It takes more than two hours to venture into the forest, and during the zippy boat ride I learn the meaning of ‘Kuala’ that features in so many local place names. And rather unsurprisingly for a nation criss-crossed by waterways, it’s ‘the point where two rivers join’. One loud and exhilarating trip later and we’ve reached our home for the night at the Mutiara Taman Negara Resort. My cabin certainly isn’t five-star, but is all the better for it. The local monkeys don’t seem to mind much either and merrily practice their gymnastics on the roof.
Lost amongst the endless greenery, there’s nothing to do but marvel at the sheer abundance of life around us. The park is home to tigers, many different types of birds and thousands of plants found nowhere else in the world.
The canopy walkways high above the jungle floor are the best way to immerse yourself in nature’s bounty and my guide explains the many uses for the diverse flora. There are also trips to indigenous villages where it’s possible to learn the skills needed to survive in the wilderness. I discover that making fire without matches and hunting food with a blowpipe aren’t things you can master in an hour or two.
The boat trip and trek to Kuala Trengga is as ethereal and idyllic as it is wet – and my camera needs to be safely tucked away as we weave and splash our way home via the rapids. It’s a mark of Malaysia’s rapid pace of development that I exit the jungle entirely by road – which was not possible when I was here many years ago.
Heading north west, towards Penang, into the Cameron Highlands, we enjoy a memorable lunch at the well-known Golfer’s Café that overlooks the beautiful Cameron course. This is a tea-growing region, and we include a stop at the vast BOH Tea Plantation. Founded back in 1929, the enterprise is the biggest of its kind in the country. The Visitors Centre tells the fascinating tale of jungle clearance on steep slopes (with just mules and a steamroller).
Hidden in the hills on a seven-acre site between Tanah Rata and Brinchang, and making the most of the region’s cool temperatures, is Strawberry Park Resort. With rates from £45, the modern resort is a perfect base for activities like nature walks and visits to the many apiaries and strawberry farms. Gunung Brinchange – or ‘Mossy Forest’ – is a must-do trek and it’s easy to see how the place got its name.
Sam Poh Tong Cave Temple, close to Ipoh, is equally wonderful. Chinese Buddhists built it within an enormous raw limestone cave in the 1950s, and nuns and monks still live here today. It is filled with impressive art, including a reclining Buddha.
Penang itself has enough to fill a holiday on its own, with soft sandy beaches, cultural sites and stunning scenery. I explore the charming nooks and crannies of George Town while staying at the Areca Hotel, including the Tropical Spice Gardens, Georgetown Cafe, Komtar Tower and Habitat Penang Hill Rainforest Experience - where I tentatively watch a tarantula creep out of its hole.
Back in Kuala Lumpur Precious Old China Café in the Central Market offers the best in Straits Chinese dining, while the Petronas Twin Towers reveal the city in all its chaotic beauty. But it’s up in the clouds with the orangutans, where I feel at home in ‘Natural Malaysia’.
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